Facilities (Learning Spaces)

Schoolyards that Both Students and Communities Enjoy

students working on schoolyard garden


In 2012, leaders of openlands, which was founded in 1963 as a program of the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago and is one of the oldest metropolitan conservation organizations in the nation, and Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC), a nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring that all students have access to healthy school environments where they can learn and thrive, met to explore how they could work together to benefit Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) crumbling schoolyards.

Both organizations were already working with CPS in different capacities. Openlands had a program installing school gardens (58 were complete) to provide access to nature for their respective communities, teachers and students. Healthy Schools was helping administrators create nutrition standards, advocating for reinstating recess and
assisting the district in revamping its physical education program. It was through its work with the district that Healthy Schools leaders discovered that many CPS schoolyards were in disrepair and unable to support all the positive changes the district was making.

The leaders did indeed come up with a plan, which they named Space to Grow. In addition to Openlands and HSC, the program was developed by the region’s two public water utilities, Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) and Chicago Department of Water Management (CDWM), and CPS.

School Planning & Management recently spoke with Kristin Lo Verde, Openlands’ education manager, about Space to Grow. Here’s what the program is accomplishing in the fourth largest school district in the nation, educating nearly 400,000 students in 652 schools, of which 480 are elementary.

native garden sign in school yard


SPM: How did the Space to Grow program get started?

Lo Verde: Noting that the schoolyards were deteriorating and that not all of them had playgrounds, we wondered what could we do with these outdoor spaces to support the district. We knew that MWRD and CDWM had dollars available to install green infrastructure components, so we brought them into the conversation.

These organizations had not previously worked together as a group, and each had different goals for the program. As you can imagine, a lot of time and discussion went into determining how the goals fit together and creating a joint vision to move the program forward. The resulting program goals are promoting health and wellness, outdoor learning and stormwater management.

The water utilities provide capital funding, help identify schools in neighborhoods with flooding problems and contribute expertise to the design and construction of green infrastructure elements. CPS provides capital funding and expertise, hires the design teams and manages the construction.

students planting in schoool yard


Spaces to Grow. In 2012, leaders of Openlands, a program of the Welfare Council of Metropolitan Chicago, and Chicago-based Healthy Schools Campaign (HSC), met to explore how they could work together to benefit Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) crumbling schoolyards. Both organizations were already working with CPS in different capacities. Openlands had a program installing school gardens (58 were complete). Healthy Schools was helping administrators create nutrition standards, advocating for reinstating recess and assisting the district in revamping its physical education program. The leaders came up with a plan, which they named Space to Grow.

SPM: What is the cost of each schoolyard?

Lo Verde: Capital funding for each project is $1.5 million dollars. That includes design, construction, all above-ground elements and green infrastructure components. The schoolyards include play equipment, outdoor classrooms, sports fields, basketball courts and even edible gardens to promote and encourage outdoor learning, nutrition education, access to healthy foods and physical activity.

SPM: Describe some of the schoolyards that are completed.

Lo Verde: Nine schoolyards are complete; each schoolyard represents the needs of each school community. One of the first schoolyards was an acre of crumbling asphalt. When it would rain, the water would sit on the schoolyard, so the students couldn’t use the space at all. Half of the schoolyard was designed to include basketball hoops, a volleyball court, an outdoor classroom, two playgrounds, native gardens and raised beds for vegetable gardens. This half of the schoolyard captures all stormwater that falls on the site. Now, after it rains, students can use the space right away. The other half was resurfaced and includes a running track.

Another schoolyard features a runnel — a blend of “river” and “tunnel” — where water comes off the roof and goes through the runnel into a native garden. The process can be seen, which highlights Space to Grow’s stormwater element. In fact, all of the schoolyards include this green infrastructure and, at some of them, it is daylighted.

Commissioner Kari Steele reports that, combined, the completed projects retain more than 1.6 million gallons of stormwater on site, which keeps runoff out of the sewer system during the heaviest of storms. She also notes that the stormwater management and development of urban green spaces contributes to cleaner water, less flooding, fewer combined sewer overflows, reduced heat island effect, and enhanced and increased regional biodiversity.

SPM: How is the decision made as to which schoolyards get transformed?

Lo Verde: Every schoolyard is unique, as is every community. The ones we’ve completed so far are ones that were in desperate need of improvement. The ones we choose are based on a list of criteria. For example, there is a percentage of flooding that occurs, whether they have a playground, the schoolyard size (needs to be greater than 30,000 square feet), the amount of impermeable surfaces on the schoolyard, the amount of open space deficit, income level and obesity rates in the community.

school playground


SPM: What changes/improvements are being made to the program as each schoolyard is completed?

Lo Verde: Community engagement is a key program component. We use an inclusive planning process to engage all users of the schoolyard (students, teachers, parents, community members). Since the pilot year, our community engagement process has been strengthened so that each schoolyard is designed and built per each community’s needs and vision.

We’ve also created a design manual to assist the designers and share lessons learned. For instance, when trees are incorporated into the design, we ask the designers to see if a shade tree would be beneficial in that area to increase shade. Also, we need to be careful with having gardens near very active spaces like turf fields.

And we’re still working on looking at the overall maintenance plan of each schoolyard once construction is complete. Each schoolyard is a different based on the elements, green infrastructure and landscaping. A process to streamline the operations and maintenance is in the works.

SPM: What happens after each schoolyard is open?

Lo Verde: We continue to support each schoolyard after it is installed. Specifically, Openlands and HSC commit to three years of support. We have designed a comprehensive approach that ensures the schoolyard is integrated into school life regardless of changes in leadership or staffing.

outdoor school learning space


Multipurpose Schoolyard. Nine Chicago Public Schoolyards have been redesigned and transformed since the program began. Each is designed according to the needs of the school and community. One common factor is the green infrastructure element that involves the capture of stormwater. The completed projects retain more than 1.6 million gallons of stormwater, which keeps runoff out of the sewer system.

One way we offer support is through a number of teacher workshops. One is a stormwater workshop where we discuss what is happening on the schoolyard in relation to capturing stormwater. There is a lot happening underground. Another workshop discusses the benefits of teaching outdoors and offering best practices on how to do it. HSC facilitates a workshop focusing on health and wellness. The teacher workshops support the program’s three goals.

A community stormwater workshop is also held for parents and community members. It’s similar to the teacher workshop with a focus on what the community members can do at home to help with stormwater management. Participants receive a free rain barrel or free flat of native plants, depending on what they want. A garden workshop is also offered to the teachers, parents and community members on how to use and maintain the gardens. We do this workshop within the first year of each schoolyard’s opening.

We also support the development of a wellness team to ensure each schoolyard is incorporated into physical education and recess plans, a garden team to take ownership of the garden or gardens, and parent leadership.

Our support plan for each school is tailored to the schoolyard’s and community’s needs. For example, one school recently had some staff turnover, so we repeated our workshops for the benefit of the new staff. We have to be, and are, flexible in the support we provide.

SPM: What benefits have the schoolyards wrought?

Lo Verde: We have completed a couple of program evaluations via focus groups with parents and the community. One immediate benefit they note is a reduction in behaviorial and discipline issues. Students are eager to go outside, even in inclement weather. Another is that the schoolyards are being used by community members; they’re getting outside — using the track, sitting in the garden spaces and having coffee, and bringing their children to the playgrounds.

School leaders indicate that the schoolyards that are activated by community members realize a decrease in crime and graffiti. In the design process of one schoolyard specifically, community members desired a tall fence around it to prevent people from using it inappropriately. We told them that the schoolyards can’t be locked at night; they’re open to the community after school and on the weekends. Then we asked what else we could do to make it a positive place that people desire to use and use appropriately. As a result, they took ownership of the space.

We’re seeing that sense of ownership in all the schoolyards. We sponsor stewardship days where we ask the community to join us for weeding, mulching and clean up. Even outside those days, we see people picking up garbage and maintaining the spaces.

SPM: Which is more important, creating vibrant outdoor spaces or addressing environmental concerns?

Lo Verde: Well, that depends on which partner you’re asking.
We’re fortunate to have a program that’s able to address both concerns.

SPM: What is the future of the Space to Grow program?

Lo Verde: We have a goal to have 34 schoolyards designed, constructed and activated by 2019. After 2019, our plan is to continue with the program and, while we’re not sure in what capacity that will be, we would love to see a Space to Grow schoolyard at every CPS school.

For more information about Space to Grow, visit www.spacetogrowchicago.org or www.mwrd.org.


According to Water Online (www.wateronline.com), the leading source of technical information and thought leadership for the drinking water and wastewater treatment community, Space to Grow has won a number of awards. Check it out:

  1. 2016 Best of Green School Award for Collaboration by the Center for Green Schools at the U.S. Green Building Council in collaboration with the Green Schools National Network;
  2. Sustainability award from the Illinois Association for Floodplain and Stormwater Management;
  3. New Champions” award from the National Physical Activity Plan Alliance; and
  4. 2016 National Association of Flood and Stormwater Management Agencies’ (NAFSMA) first place Green Infrastructure award.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .